Gentrification is a bad word. You see this when you read articles like the one in the February 4th issue of New York Magazine in which it is described as “an ugly word, a term of outrage.” You hear it when you listen to radio programs that describe it as a form of an economic “urban removal” program, unintentional perhaps but no less forceful than the official Urban Renewal programs of the sixties, driving the poor out of areas that have been their homes so that other, wealthier people can live, shop and work there. But is it really a bad thing?
If gentrification is a bad thing, why is it so bad? The perception is that as a result of increased property values, escalating rents and home prices, and lower priced shops being replaced by ones that are more expensive, the poor are forced to move out. But is this really true?
In a recent study, Daniel Hartley of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland states that “a look at the data suggests that gentrification is actually beneficial to the financial health of the original residents. From a financial perspective,” he continues, “it is better to be a resident of a low-price neighborhood that is gentrifying than one that is not.” Finally, he notes that “this is true whether residents of the gentrifying neighborhood own homes or do not and whether or not they move out of the neighborhood.”
Certainly, looking beyond the boundaries of the gentrifying neighborhood itself, there can be little argument about its benefits to American cities. Tax revenues go up. Crime decreases. The ability to pay for the public schools we all want improves. The availability of an increased and educated workforce makes the jurisdiction more attractive to employers, both existing and prospective. For the first time in decades, people moving into the city actually exceed the number moving out. And that has all sorts of positive environmental benefits that accrue well beyond the city boundaries.
But let’s forget the benefits to the city and our environment and get back to the affected neighborhoods. It doesn’t take long to find qualifiers in Dr. Hanley’s report that make his conclusions suspect. However, even if he’s wrong and gentrification is an unmitigated disaster for the existing residents, as the critics say it is, then what’s the alternative? Shall we encourage our young people to follow their immediate predecessors, buy a couple of nice cars and move to the suburbs? Shall we allow the economic base of our communities to disintegrate completely? How and from where do we generate the revenue to pay for the public services that we all need but can’t afford?
I believe that the movement of more affluent, particularly young people, into neighborhoods that have been affordable, and the changes to that community as a result, can be very positive for everyone involved. I also believe that gentrification is but the continuation of a series of changes that occurs in our neighborhoods and will continue to occur in our neighborhoods as long as they exist. People, individuals come and they go. Neighborhood composition changes over time. The best neighborhoods are those that accommodate change without losing their original character, without losing their soul.
If gentrification is so bad that it causes a neighborhood to completely lose its character, then it is inherently self-destructive. A big part of what attracts people to changing neighborhoods is the very diversity and personality that is often associated with lower income neighborhoods. Realistically, the people who move into gentrifying neighborhoods are not the same people who would be happy living with the boring sameness, the national chain-like monotony, of so much of suburban America. So, if by moving into a neighborhood, they bring monotony with it, then gentrification of any one neighborhood will be a short-lived phenomenon. More likely, it will be self-correcting.
As Justin Davidson wrote in New York Magazine, “gentrification doesn’t need to be something that one group inflicts on another; often it’s the result of aspirations everybody shares.” Everyone wants safer streets, better schools and financially solvent cities. Having neighbors who can help provide this is not a bad thing and perhaps shouldn’t be described with a “bad word.”